Lee & Kirby & Ditko: A Clue in the Saga of Joan Lee

There is an often-told anecdote about the early days of Marvel and what inspired that era of creativity. I believe it was first widely shared publicly in the pages of ORIGINS OF MARVEL COMICS, though Stan Lee may have shared it during his college lecture circuit tours earlier. And it goes like this.

By the early 1960s, Stan Lee was feeling restless and trapped in a go-nowhere job. He’d been toiling for publisher Martin Goodman for close to two decades, grinding out hundreds of comic magazine stories of indeterminate quality. Now, with the business in a slump thanks to the implosion of Goodman’s distributor, future prospects for gainful employment seemed dim, and Lee was looking for some other job with more of a future. One of his big complaints was that he was forced to churn out stories that weren’t very good, that he felt were beneath him, because that’s what the boss wanted. And supposedly, one night as he complained to his wife Joan, she told him, “Why don’t you try to do a comic magazine the way you think it ought to be done?” Stan wanted to quit anyway, so if Martin Goodman fired him, it wouldn’t be any skin off his nose. And this would let him get the whole thing out of his system. So inspired, Stan went back to work and, with Jack Kirby, came up with the Fantastic Four. And so history was made.

It’s a really good story, and one that hardcore Jack Kirby supporters dispute ever happened–in their view, Kirby came up with practically everything and Lee simply took the credit for most of it. But I think there’s more to that story than might initially meet the eye–but I suspect that it maybe didn’t have as much to do with FANTASTIC FOUR as with another title released at virtually the same time.

Over the years, Lee made no secret of the fact that, while Kirby was his most popular adventure artist and his bread-and-butter, Lee’s favorite collaborator (at least after the passing of his long-time partner Joe Maneely) was actually Steve Ditko. Lee thought Ditko’s work was a cut above, and he relished the opportunity to do the more intellectual and introspective five-page stories with him that brought up the rear in all of then-Marvel’s suspense magazines. In fact, on a couple of occasions, Lee even cover blurbed those stories with credits, something that just wasn’t typically done in that era, when even story credits were often frowned upon. Clearly, Lee had a strong affinity for these tales.

So when Martin Goodman came to Lee and told him to begin working on a new super hero team title (based on the sell-through of the early issues of JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA) Lee took advantage of the moment to make a change to another title at the same time. In order to make time in his schedule for FANTASTIC FOUR, Kirby needed to step away from doing the main story in AMAZING ADVENTURES, another in te number of suspense books the firm was putting out. Lee took this opportunity to try something new. He rechristened the title AMAZING ADULT FANTASY and filled it cover to cover with short fantasy stories produced by himself and Ditko. The book was clearly to be aimed at a more discerning audience–everything from the addition of the word ADULT to the title to its slogan –“the Magazine That Respects Your Intelligence” screams this.

FANTASTIC FOUR and AMAZING ADULT FANTASY were virtually sister titles. They even share a common logo treatment. And in a rare case of in-house advertising, they also shared a house ad that ran in a number of titles, linking the two as exciting new fantasy titles cut from the same cloth. The ad ran concurrent with FANTASTIC FOUR #3 and AMAZING ADULT FANTASY #10 (its fourth issue.)

Unfortunately, AMAZING ADULT FANTASY didn’t find enough of an audience. In a bit to keep the title alive, Lee chose to debut Spider-Man within its pages, intending for that character to be the new lead feature in the magazine. But fast-on-the-trigger Martin Goodman canceled the book wit #15 anyway–an act that he’d regret, and de facto reverse once he saw the sales figures on that final Spider-Man led issue.

So here’s what I think: I think the essence of the Joan Lee story is true, but that it applied to either both FANTASTIC FOUR and AMAZING ADULT FANTASY equally, or it was really the inspiration behind AAF. As people ave talked about elsewhere, those early issues of FANTASTIC FOUR don’t quite seem on a par with the best of either Lee or Kirby’s work, and it wasn’t until a few issues later–once sales began to be tabulated, perhaps? –that it starts to feel as though greater effort is being expended on the book (although, as we’ve covered here previously, there was plenty of work being done on those early issues.)

I think Lee’s attempt, at Joan’s urging, to do a comic magazine exactly the way he wanted to led to AMAZING ADULT FANTASY–which, unfortunately, was a commercial failure. But by the time it reached the end of the road, Lee had other successes he could focus on. And I think, over time, in the retelling, the story of Stan’s wife inspiring him just became cleaner and better by omitting the failed AMAZING ADULT FANTASY from it. One win and one loss isn’t really as inspiring an outcome.

16 thoughts on “Lee & Kirby & Ditko: A Clue in the Saga of Joan Lee

  1. Keep perpetuating that historical nonsense. Why do you assume Lee is telling the truth and not Kirby or Ditko for that matter? Lee suddenly becomes a wealth of ideas the minute Jack walks in the door or that Lee somehow snuck Spider-man into Amazing Fantasy without Goodman’s approval?

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    1. I don’t think that Stan snuck Spider-man into AMAZING FANTASY, I think he put the strip there but it wasn’t enough to save the magazine. Beyond that, I assume that everybody is telling the truth to the best of their ability, and I try to puzzle out a sequence of events based on the facts and evidence at hand.

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  2. Much to comment here. First to Jim. I don’t think Stan’s wish to do something new was about ideas, I think it was about execution. Stan had always used ideas of others as a starting point for his most personal work. In the forties he was given My friend Irma and turned it into a longrunning series that had more to do with his own style and taste than the radio show or movies it was based on. In the fifties he took Harvey Kurtzman’s idea of the magazine mad and used it to create Snafu, which was completely different. But, as I noted in my book Behaving Madly, it did allow him to do a couple of subjects and formats that Kurtzman did not think about or Al Feldstein only stubled upon several years later. Idea and executition are two different things. In fact, I believe that it is quite juvenile (or shallow, for want of a better word) to think that idea and execution are the same thing – which is precisely what Stan wanted to escape. Just as I find the idea that there is one one truth quite juvenile. You blame Tom for calling Jack Kirby a liar, because he takes Stan at his word. And if Stan is telling the truth Jack Kirby must be lying – or the other way around. I believe that two persons can have their own truth and it is our duty as comic book historians to find narratives that allow both of them to be true. So I do believe that Stan wanted to do something different and I do believe that Jack Kirby created a version of The Fantastic Four and Spiderman. So the next part probably goes more to Tom. While I find the notion you put forward here interesting, I have always assumed that Stan’s story about Joan was more about Spiderman then The Fantastic Four. It’s in Spiderman that Stan first finds his voice, with a heroes who is defined by his problems instead of his heroism. In fact, I think Stan’s remark to Joan he wanted to do something different doesn’t really apply to The Fantastic Four for the first few issues. I also feel that in part, it was also a reaction to the kind of stories Jack Kirby brought to Stan. When he was first tasked to create a superhero team, Jack may have come up with some stuff, using some of his old ideas from The Challangers. Bu if Stan had written it the way Kirby intended it would probably have been just another (juvenile) DC comic. And that goes even more for Spiderman. Let’s assume that it was Jack Kirby who came up with Spiderman (because I want to incorporate every truth and Kirby said he ‘invented’ Spiderman. We know from Steve Ditkos recollection that Jack Kirby’s version would have been another oldfashioned (jevenile) series in the tradition of Captain Marvel even. So Stan gave it o steve Ditko, with whom he was working on the Amazing Adult Fantasies, to turn it into something more akin to that. So as far as I am concerned even if Stan decided to do it his own way, on Spiderman it was the first time i really clicked. For me Jack Kirby may have created the Marvel Universe, but Stan Lee created The Marvel Style. Idea and execution.

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    1. You are half right. Yes the style was with Spider-Man it did not come from Stan it was Ditko’s voice for the character. People always attribute the flaws and humanism in it Lee. But they are what disappeared when Romita came on. The human elements had a different tone in that series than they did in other Marvel titles. This is especially true with Ditko’s last year on the title. 25-38 and annual 2. Despite the fact that many attribute this Lee,they disappeared with Ditko. Mostly what Lee brought to those issues was the humor. Of course Ditko’s later work is quite different. More preachy and less personal.


      1. I agree, Stan’s wit is all over Spider-man & as your rightly say carried in the Romita era.
        Ditko was definitely putting in the human elements, the constant money problems.
        Peter could even afford a motorbike early in the Romita contrast with Spidey sewing his costume.

        Although Ditko did introduce huge charges such as the move to University, the junking of established characters (Liz Allen) , downgrading of the Betty Brant romance & the introduction of new characters.

        Both contributed key Spidey elements but for me Ditko’s contribution was more substantial with recurring characters & strong villains.


  3. The cover designs of those seven issues also look more thought-out and sophisticated, especially when compared to Kirby’s monster covers. Their look seems to lean toward paperback book covers, as Western Publishing’s Gold Key imprint embraced around the same time.

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  4. I agree with Ger.
    Tom reference that, because the quality of the early Fantastic Four stories is low, relative to later stories, that perhaps Stan wasn’t as invested in them as he was the Amazing Adult Fantasy stories.
    Ger points out that ideas and execution are not necessarily synonymous.
    My real issue with what Tom is saying about the FF, though, is despite the initial stories not being up to par with later ones, it completely ignores how different those initial FF stories truly are. Squabbling superheros; an angry monster, jealous of the leader and a continuous potential threat to the other members? These are ideas and concepts that have never been seen in any DC, Fawcett, Dell, Archie, or any other publisher’s books. Simply because they don’t start out at the same level of sophistication and quality that they’ll eventually achieve makes them no less fantastically more sophisticated.
    I also agree with Ger that without Stan’s influence and solely Kirby’s, the early works would have remained entirely more juvenile.
    I appreciate Kirby fans seeing the Challengers work by Kirby and wanting to accuse Lee of slighting Kirby, but from the outset, the level of emotional sophistication of the FF characters is a clear Lee hallmark.

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    1. I certainly agree with Lorne’s points. But I also think Tom is spot on in seeing the Fantastic Four and Amazing Adult Fantasy as dual efforts by Lee to do something different, with more of an edge than was typical of most comics in era since the Comics Code Authority was imposed. Of course, the FF & AAF were still very much staying well within what was permitted by the CCA, but nevertheless the FF in particular was edging close to the boundaries with bickering heroes who fought one another and bad guys who lost the fight but still managed to get away — Namor in issue 4 & Dr. Doom in issue 5, not to mention a hero who makes a terrible mistake that causes his friend to be horribly deformed. The writing & art would get more sophisticated in later years, but from all I’ve read, the FF in particular was startlingly different from the typical superhero fare published by other companies in 1961 (I didn’t make my debut until June 1962 so I can’t claim any first hand knowledge). Of course, once Spider-Man came along, Lee was able to shape a superhero who was even more unique, and he had pretty much a perfect co-creator in Ditko as it seems Peter Parker was largely based on Ditko’s much younger self and for the most part during his run, IMO, Amazing Spider-Man was the best comics being published, at least up through issue #33. Fantastic Four wasn’t far behind, but I think Spider-Man had the lead in the best stories and art during Ditko’s tenure on the title. Ironically, when I first saw Ditko’s art, in reprints, in the ’70s, I thought it was terrible! Took me a while to come to appreciate how great it was, in both ASM and Dr. Strange.

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  5. Joan Lee *did* say something to Stan and that isn’t in dispute. What’s in dispute is the retroactive credit that Marvel gives her, even in disgusting tones on the blurb for the upcoming August 1961 Omnibus- “until his beloved wife Joan encouraged him to do it HIS way”- since it preserves the corporate owner’s necessary myth.

    Stan told variations on this several times but the earliest time he says it in passing and the tone is different- he says he was complaining and Joan got FRUSTRATED with his complaining and says, quote, “when are you going to realize this is permanent?”

    This backs up with Jason Goodman’s reflections on how Joan often got tipsy and berated Stan in front of guests, something Abraham Riesman documented is available on family VHS tapes publicly accessible in Stan’s archives. According to other asides Stan made in interviews, his wife has no interest in his work or career so this also supports the theory that it was less some brilliant touch of inspiration and more impatience in Stan’s indecisiveness. It has nothing to do with being pro Kirby. I’m not pro sun because it comes up every morning; it just does and it’s factual and I can’t dispute it.

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  6. I think it’s worth noting the very first times Stan gives this anecdote, it has a very different cadence in that he states that he was generally complaining about his work and Joan says- this is his exact wording in quoting her: “when are you going to realize this is permanent?”

    Now, that’s vastly different to “why don’t you do comics the way YOU want to? you’re going to quit anyway…” which is a myth. Ger Aperdorn joins the list of people unwittingly exposing the holes in Stan’s myth when he documented Stan’s numerous attempts to get away from Goodman with his own issues, all of which were failures. (And not all of those failures were Stan’s fault, admittedly but the market at the time)

    Saying “when are you going to realize this is permanent” is actually kind of damning as it gives strong indication that JOAN knew Stan was NEVER going to write the “Great American Novel”. And I don’t mean to offend any Stan fans by pointing that out; after all, aren’t you glad that he didn’t? But yes, Stan says early on that one day Joan said that and I think he gradually realized how he could apply it and clean it up a bit so it had more staying power and was less critical.

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